Australian scientists are reportedly closer than ever to turn a traditional Chinese fruit into a new Australian favorite, with researchers at the University of Queensland preparing to cultivate the first commercial crops of the Chinese bayberry outside of Asia.
With the dedication that comes from obsession, Professor Daryl Joyce at The University of Queensland (UQ) has developed new Red Bayberry varieties that are now thriving in the Queensland subtropics.
Native to eastern Asia, the Chinese bayberry is mainly found in China, where it is known as 'Yang Mei.'
Joyce's celebrated work has involved collaborations with government Primary Industry departments and has received support from Australia's Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation.
Professor Joyce said the small number of mature fruiting trees currently growing in South East Queensland started producing potentially commercial yields of fruit just three years after transplanting.
"We were pleasantly surprised the trees grew so quickly and started fruiting after such a short juvenile period after transplanting," Professor Joyce said.
The fruit has been a favorite over the centuries in China and is highly-sought after because of the well-reported health benefits (and its sweet flavor) and to high levels of antioxidants.
The Chinese bayberry has also been growing in China, Japan and Southeast Asia for 2,000 years and is of significant economic interest.
According to Professor Joyce, the berry is unique.
"But it's actually not like any other fruit because it's a completely different species and genus to anything else in horticulture at the moment that we eat," he said. "It's got a seed inside it like a cherry seed, it's got a flesh around it like a berry flesh and it's about the size of a lychee."
The bayberry - often referred to as the "yumberry" - has seen dramatically increased production in China over the last decade with juice products exported to the U.S. and elsewhere.
UQ scientists have already spent 15 years developing the red bayberry in Australia.
Industry backing recently enabled researchers to enlist the help of growers who are overseeing test orchards up and down the east coast of Australia.
Researcher Dr Melinda Perkins says most of the trial plantings have only been in the ground for about two years.
"(They) are only just starting to produce fruit," she said.
"We really need to find out what varieties perform best where, and get as many trees in the ground as soon as possible for an industry to take off in Australia."
"We've had plantings in Atherton in far north Queensland, New South Wales, and in Victoria the Dandenong Ranges."
UniQuest, UQ's technology transfer company, has initiated a commercialization pathway for the new Red Bayberry varieties, based on the excellent performance in Queensland field trials and positive results from consumer testing.
UniQuest Manager of Innovation and Commercial Development Cameron Turner said the strong results suggest that Red Bayberry may become a new high value horticulture fruit crop in Australia.
"Peak harvest occurs in early November in South East Queensland, " Mr Turner said.
"However, we expect to extend the supply period from early October into December, ideally to Christmas, through production in areas further to the North and South, respectively."
Growers have provided scientists with feedback, and sent fruit samples for laboratory testing.
Scientists then analyzed the size, color and sweetness of the fruit to determine under which conditions red bayberry trees produce the best yield.
The tree can grow up to 20 meters tall, preferring sandy, loamy, or clay soils that need to be well drained. On average, one tree produces around 30 kilograms of fruit.
Dr Perkins says the challenge is to successfully propagate the red bayberry tree on a timescale for the venture to be considered viable.
"We really need to find out what varieties perform best where, and get as many trees in the ground as soon as possible for an industry to take off in Australia," Perkins said.
The UQ effort which is the culmination of a vast network of experience stretching from the Yangtze river to Brisbane could represent the first attempt to produce red bayberry commercially outside of its native China.
Joyce said, "It's grown and consumed in sub-tropical China but it hasn't spread very far from there because it's a very perishable fruit."
"There's a little bit eaten in Japan, a little bit eaten in Taiwan, but that's about it."
Professor Joyce says the bayberry has the potential to provide a much needed shot in the arm for Australian growers.
"We think our growers can make good money out of selling red bayberry," he said. "We think (red bayberry)will be a highly profitable crop for industry and a highly delicious crop for consumers."
However, like all good things, Professor Joyce says getting the product up and running takes time.
"We are trying to do it properly so that everybody benefits - the industry benefits, the consumers benefit. As you probably know, it is very hard to get a new crop adopted and get anyone to invest in bringing it over here."